Sol What? Some Thoughts on Solfège

In The Musician’s Way, I encourage the singing of solfège syllables, scale-degree numbers, counting syllables, and letter names as part of the process of learning, memorizing, and interpreting music.

In my own teaching and playing, I employ the fixed-do solfège system, and I’d like to offer some reasons why.

First, if you clicked on this article, I assume that you know what solfège syllables are, how they’re used, and what the differences are between the fixed and movable-do systems.

Although fixed-do has been a fixture in my life for a long time, I don’t use fixed-do merely out of habit. I think that it offers me and my students advantages over the movable system because of how we use solfège and because of the international conservatory culture in which we work at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.*

  1. For starters, in much of the world, pitches are labeled with fixed-do solfège syllables and not letters (e.g., in Russia, East Asia, Europe, and Latin America). Hence, movable-do can cause profound confusion to anyone who grew up singing fixed-do. As an illustration, envision an American violinist arriving at an alien conservatory and having to use movable letters, where “C” is always the name given to the first scale degree. Her low string would be G when playing in the key of C, but that string would change names in other keys, becoming D when playing in F (the 2nd scale degree), B when playing in Ab major (the 7th scale degree), and so forth. What could be more onerous? Given that American music schools enroll students from across the globe, I see an advantage to all of us using the same fixed-do system.
  2. Fixed-do solfège adapts to any kind of music, tonal or otherwise. Movable-do is a square peg in the round world of non-tonal repertoire. And non-tonal styles of music have been prevalent in the West for more than a century (consider Debussy, for instance), which makes the movable-do system something of an anachronism for performers of modern and contemporary music. That said, many educators find movable-do beneficial for musicians who work within tonal boundaries.
  3. Movable-do highlights scale degree function; it underscores pitch relationships and therefore can help some musicians tune the intervals that they play or sing. Nonetheless, numbers can serve that purpose quite well, too. Furthermore, when we label scale degrees, we naturally use numbers. For example, in Bb major, D is the 3rd scale degree: It’s “three.” If students are taught movable-do solfège, they typically learn two systems for thinking about scale degrees: numbers and movable-do syllables. Perhaps that isn’t a problem, but, to me, it seems more practical to use a single system – numbers.
  4. Solfège syllables are ideal for vocalizing, especially compared to letters, so they facilitate the expressive singing of instrumental melodies. Fixed-do also aids in correlating notation with technical execution (e.g., the low string on a violin is always “sol”), plus, it can help with memorization due to the fact that note names and their technical requirements remain consistent. Of course, singing scale-degree numbers supports memorization, too, because it reinforces melodic function, so movable-do can also fuel memorization. But assuming that each of us will only use one solfège system, I’m inclined to go with the tradeoffs that fixed-do supplies.

Before I sign off, let me say that I not only employ fixed-do solfège but also use chromatic syllables (i.e., F# is “fi,” etc.). When I learn a solo piece, for example, I solfège all of the voices, and I memorize without trouble. It’s often more difficult for me to forget a composition than to remember it.

Needless to say, we all differ in our learning styles, so I’m not advocating fixed-do or chromatic syllables for everyone. And I don’t require all of my American students to employ solfège, nor do I give solfège a place of prominence in The Musician’s Way.

But I have no doubt regarding the benefits that I’ve derived from adopting fixed-do early in my education and later, after being exposed to the work of pedagogue Aaron Shearer, slotting in the chromatic syllables.

In sum, performers who are comfortable using movable-do solfège probably do well to continue using it.

For those who have no history with solfège and ordinarily label pitches with letters, if they enroll in a school that requires movable-do, using that system might boost their learning of tonal music theory and help them in other ways. Some students who are accustomed to letter names won’t feel comfortable with either solfège system.

For me and most of my students, though, fixed-do solfège has become a native language that allows us to effortlessly integrate expression, notation, and technique. For this and other reasons, I’m sticking with fixed-do.

Related posts are tagged Musicianship.

© 2009 Gerald Klickstein

*Update: In 2012, I left UNCSA for a position with the Peabody Conservatory.

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27 Responses to “Sol What? Some Thoughts on Solfège”

  1. Denny Coiro said:

    Aug 12, 09 at 15:45

    Thank you for this well thought out and reasoned article.

    I have a small differing thought.

    I do understand that fixed-do is the dominant system for much of the world, but in my experience most folks who have trained here in the US learned the movable-do system for sight-singing and ear-training. We are also very fluent in the ABCDEFG system that fits all kinds of music.

    It seems that trying to change the established culture here in the US is sort of like getting us to accept the metric system for normal commerce. There is much fear and trembling related to this change of our culture.

    I have no problem in using the movable-do system for basic sight singing-and ear-training and the Alpha system for reading.

  2. M. J. Milford said:

    Aug 12, 09 at 21:26

    Having lived in Ukraine for 3 years, I can vouch for the fact that musicians there do call “Middle C” – “DO” – regardless of the key, but I can also assure you that using that system has NOT made superior sight-singers of the Russian-speaking world. Calling the note “DO” is simply a matter of intellectual data, not aural recognition. I’m sure conservatory pedagogues there will argue that Fixed-DO is the only serious way to teach, but shouldn’t proof of its superior instructional value be seen in the trickle-down effect? That’s the acid test of any strategy.

  3. D Read said:

    Aug 13, 09 at 10:57

    Try and see beyond the system that you learnt with! Fixed-do is as meaningless as ABC. If you want international standardization (although that would be anti-creative), choose ABC every time.

    Moveable-do not only helps tune intervals but to actually pitch them. You don’t need to know what key you’re in to sing something along with piano. Ok it’s no good for 12 tone music, but that’s about it.

    People used solmisation even before major and minor scales came along, so to say it’s rubbish for the 20th century is ludicrous.

    In Britain, church singers don’t tend to learn solmisation, but have a worldwide reputation for being amazing sight readers. They’re insulted if you give them music before a rehearsal and I know choirs that choose to have only a 15 minute rehearsal before a service. Is solmisation really superior to the British teaching method?

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Aug 14, 09 at 09:27

    Thank you for your comments. Please note that I’m not claiming that fixed-do is a superior system or one that we should all adopt; my point is that I have a preference for fixed-do based on how I use it as a performer and performance educator. And I don’t mean to disparage movable-do or any other musical approach (e.g., the British system) but to point out that movable-do has proven beneficial to some, but not to me.

    All of your comments are important, and I think that they point to some bigger issues. For one, the different systems of solmization and sight-singing can serve distinct as well as comparable purposes and be more or less appropriate depending on one’s background and needs. For another, we could use more research (or “acid tests,” as M.J. put it) into the tradeoffs that solfege systems provide.

    Denny’s analogy with the metric/English systems of measurement seems quite apt: our traditions will influence our musical and educational approaches, and tossing out tradition is probably a strategy destined for failure. Flexibly adapting our traditions probably makes the most sense, especially when we’re in educational roles and we work with students who have diverse learning styles and histories. Hence, I hope that music educators who employ movable-do will be sensitive to the needs of students who come from fixed-do traditions, and those, like me, who use fixed-do, will accommodate students who come from letter-based or movable-do traditions (I certainly do).

  5. David Malek said:

    May 23, 10 at 14:21

    There is evidence from a research project done by Larry Scripp at the New England Conservatory that supports fixed “do” over movable “do” if you are interested in it. As heads of the ear training department, Larry and Lyle Davidson decided to change to a fixed “do” system based on this research. The fixed “do” vs. movable “do” arguments often carry the same zeal as political or religious discussions and are usually backed up by the same evidence–personal preference and opinion. Granted, there are few musicians out there with the requisite research background needed to conduct a legitimate study, but Larry and Lyle are the exception.

  6. Gerald Klickstein said:

    May 23, 10 at 15:25

    Thanks, David – you’re so right about the fierce zeal with which some educators endorse one solfege system over the other. Across time, solid research should help clear the air of hype and enable teachers to back up their preferences.
    I’m familiar with several of Larry’s and Lyle’s articles, and I’ve read about the great work they’re doing at NEC and with the Music in Education program. But I’m not sure which research study you’re referring to. Could you post another comment with a link?

  7. David Malek said:

    May 30, 10 at 18:41

    Hi Gerry,

    Larry Scripp said he would post something soon with information about his study. I had a question for you: When you say chromatic solfege, does that mean that the chromatic syllables are used only when accidentals are applied or even in diatonic applications? i.e. re mi fi sol la ti di re

    In other words, must one learn the key signatures/syllables in a given key?

    David

  8. Gerald Klickstein said:

    May 31, 10 at 09:49

    Thanks, David. With the fixed-do chromatic solfege that I use, an F# is always ‘fi’ regardless of whether the sharp is indicated in the key signature or by an accidental. Those syllables you wrote above are the ones I’d use for a D major scale.

  9. Alice said:

    Jun 09, 10 at 14:26

    I use moveable do, as that’s what I was exposed to. When I attended music camp in Quebec, I noticed that the francophone singers (who call F “Fa”) were often much better sight-singers, especially with Bach, for instance, where you’re moving through keys so quickly that you don’t have time to analyze what note is currently do.

    On the other hand, they don’t use the chromatic system — so any F (I’m referring to sight-singing, in particular) is Fa, meaning B-flat to F, B to F#, and B to F are all labelled “Si fa” — but sung with the appropriate intervals.

    When you’re using numbers, do you use a chromatic system? And is it absolute or key-based?

  10. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jun 09, 10 at 16:18

    Hi Alice – thanks for contributing. Yes, the 7-syllable fixed-do system predominates (without chromatic syllables), and it works well. E.g., users sing ‘re’ for any D and just think/feel if it’s sharp or flat. That’s the system that I used initially, and I recommend it.
    Regarding numbers: Those of us who employ fixed do, whether chromatic or not, often use numbers to indicate scale degrees, so those numbers are always key-based. I don’t use a chromatic system with them.
    That said, as a performance teacher and not a theory/sight-singing educator, I only have students sing numbers in limited, straightforward contexts. I primarily emphasize rhythm and solfege syllables.
    Hope that answers your question.

  11. Chrys said:

    Nov 15, 10 at 19:37

    I’m trying to decide how to proceed with my own musical education, so I’m considering your recommendation on solfège. Per your recommendation for using both fixed solfège and numbers, one should use the same name for altered notes and “just think/feel if it’s sharp or flat,” am I correct?

    It bothers me that in neither system gives each of the chromatic tones a unique name that can be sung easily as a number or solfège syllable. Then in English we have 3 naming systems and none which distinctly names each of the 12 tones in an octive. I don’t see how that’s a good thing for post-tonal music.

    I might be misunderstanding you, so do you have any recommendation on how to deal with chromatic melodies? I write my own material which uses some altered or chromatic scales, but I never learned sight-singing, and I want to do the best thing for the long haul, and it is more unclear than ever how I should proceed.

  12. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Nov 16, 10 at 15:16

    Hi Chrys – Thanks for the question. Good one.

    As I say in the paragraph beneath item #4, I use fixed-do with chromatic syllables (e.g., C is ‘do’ and C# is ‘di’). Although I think that not using chromatic syllables can be fine for some, I especially like them because, as you point out, chromatic solfege is especially suited to post-tonal music.
    You can see a chart of the chromatic syllables here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solf%C3%A8ge#Chromatic_variants_of_fixed_do
    Concerning numbers, I only recommend using them to highlight scale degree function and, for that purpose, I find that singing the 7 numbers and thinking alterations works fine. The issue you bring up is profound, though – we need to balance precision and simplicity. Lots of different syllables would be more precise but could get cumbersome. That’s why many people prefer to stick with fixed do w/o adding in the chromatic syllables.

  13. Esther Ginsberg said:

    May 14, 11 at 11:01

    Movable-do solfege is based on the major scale, and Curwen’s hand signals depict the character of each degree of the major scale. The method fulfilled the requirements for the speedy teaching very simple music concepts to a population of non-professional musicians who were expected to sing very simple tunes in Sunday school. I think it should never be used to teach music seriously (instrumental and vocal). It is confusing (different keys can carry the same name) and inoperant: during modulation the names have to be changed each time another scale is visited. What about simple secondary dominants? What about chromatic music? Worst of all, it restricts the genres of music a student is exposed to. Curwen’s functions do not work for other scales (different pentatonic scales, mediaeval modes other than Ionian, exotic scales). Fixed-do solfege, on the other hand, relates the real note to a name and contributes a great deal to the memorisation of music

  14. Gerald Klickstein said:

    May 14, 11 at 15:31

    Well said, Esther! Thanks for insightful comment.

  15. Bruce Rockwell said:

    May 21, 11 at 21:00

    It is true that fixed do is a superior solmization system for non-tonal repertoire. And also, using scale degrees has some advantages when using solmization to reinforce a theory curriculum. But as somebody who has learned and practiced all three of the major systems (fixed, movable, and scale degree numbers), and relatively extensively, I can’t disagree with you more about your characterization of fixed do as the superior method.

    Fixed do was introduced into many countries at a time when the musical intelligentsia thought the tonal system was dead (and often were deliberately devising various means towards that end!). Well, here we are almost a century later and if anything, it is the atonal revolution that has gone by the wayside. Tonality (with a small t) is stronger than ever, and certainly in the world of vocal music, the traditional common practice tonal system (tonality with a capital T) has never left us.

    Anybody who has worked with fixed and movable do for any length of time will easily recognize that movable do is far superior for ear training and sight singing tonal music. The cognitive reasons for this become quickly obvious. And I would argue that the main reason we teach solfege in the first place is to develop sight singing skills for tonal music. Surely, fixed do is a better system for non-tonal or highly chromatic tonal music. But as somebody who has learned both systems, and can apply either at will, I can assure you that one system informs that other, and that there is no conflict in learning both.

    Even after eighty-five years of atonal music, the number of non-tonal pieces in a singer’s standard vocal repertoire can be counted on one hand. At some point, we need to stop beating the dead horse of musical modernism and go back to the pedagogies that serve music students the best, to train the ear and the voice for the vast majority of repertoire that they actually will be singing. If we can do that effectively, extending this training into fixed do will continue to be a useful occupation for new music specialists and others who will be applying that pedagogy in its most useful context. The other 98% of music students will be much better served by learning movable do.

  16. Gerald Klickstein said:

    May 22, 11 at 13:06

    Bruce – thanks for contributing.
    To me, your thoughts illustrate the reality that we musician/educators find benefit in different solfege systems depending on the contexts in which we operate.
    I point out in my post why I, as an instrumentalist, opt for fixed-do but nod to those educators – esp. singers – who, like you, stand by the movable system because their experiences have validated that approach.
    So, as I see it, we can’t say that one system is superior to the other in all situations.
    I also suspect that, in the future, researchers will continue to find that the benefits of the different solfege systems are context-dependent.

  17. James said:

    Jan 14, 12 at 10:52

    Hi

    I realize it has been a while since anyone has replied to this post, but I thought I would just throw in my opinion about the difference between the two solfege systems.

    I myself am quite experienced at the solfege system, scale degree numbers and various other techniques after my years of training at a great music school.

    My school had an interesting way of teaching the solfege system. We focussed on learning the moveable do system, such that do was always the tonic, sol the dominant and so on. However, when singing atonal pieces, we were taught to ‘switch over’ our brains (as the teachers said it) to the fixed do system, where C was do and G was sol. Originally we didn’t really know the difference between the two systems, we just called them both ‘solfa’. In the end we realized that there were two ‘competing’ systems, but we had sort of learnt both of them at the same time, so it didn’t matter. I guess you could say we had the best of both worlds!

    I guess I do favor moveable do more, especially when casually listening to the radio etc. My mind just starts ‘solfa-ing’ along in moveable do, because I have been taught to use fixed do only if moveable do won’t suffice’

    I believe that although moveable do allows for a bit more relative pitch, tuning, and scale awareness than fixed do, fixed do allows for the singing of atonal music with much more ease. I think my training with both systems has allowed me to benefit from both systems.

    Hopefully that provides some more insight!

  18. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jan 14, 12 at 11:13

    Very helpful insights, James – thanks for contributing.

    I can envision the applications of solfege you describe working especially well for singers.

  19. Kirsten McC said:

    Jan 23, 12 at 04:43

    My class teaching is entirely to primary school children, including whole class instrumental lessons in the English Wider Opportunities scheme. We use moveable doh and scale numbers to teach pitch relationships; the children readily accept and understand both these systems and it provides an easy path to learning to play by ear.

    I also teach piano; the exam board I use introduces sight-singing for all instrumentalists from grade 4 and the moveable doh system is great for this.

    Finally, a Grade 5 theory exam is a pre-req for instrumental exams at grade 6 and beyond; moveable doh simplifies the “writing a melody to given words” question. So, in the context of teaching at this level, moveable doh works very well.

  20. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jan 23, 12 at 09:58

    Thanks, Kristen, for the illustrative and specific example.

  21. Dario said:

    May 22, 12 at 18:33

    Nice to see that there are more people out there thinking about solfege!

  22. Gerald Klickstein said:

    May 23, 12 at 17:46

    Thanks Dario. I appreciate you stopping by.

  23. Kit said:

    Oct 19, 12 at 11:25

    Thanks for writing book. I not yet read til the end of the book. But I have difficulty in fixed-do. I am born with moveable-do system. Whenever I heard a song, I can sing it in moveable-do system.

    But now, I have difficulty to transpose the moveable-do song in my mind to A-G note on instrument.

    That’s the reason I hope to overwrite my moveable-do system with fixed-do system. But I can’t find a good lesson/practise around the world. Could you give me any suggestion?

  24. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Oct 19, 12 at 20:03

    Hi Kit – Thanks for reading and for contributing your excellent question.
    If you’ve used moveable-do for such a long time, then there’s no easy way to overwrite your habits. Maybe singing letter names would be more practical than attempting to rewire your brain to use fixed-do. Use your judgment and trust your experiences as you experiment.
    Regarding materials, many people get good results from traditional solfege and sight-singing methods such as Danhauser, which is available for free download at the IMSLP: http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Danhauser,_Adolphe
    I invite you to comment again and let us know how your work progresses.

  25. Linn Weeda said:

    Apr 02, 13 at 18:24

    First, you have written a fine book which I have recommended to many of my students – Bravo!

    Weighing in on the Solfege battles: on May 23, 2010 David Malek wrote about studying with Larry Scripp. I too studied with him many years ago, before he became a researcher and head of NEC’s Music in Education program. He is, without a doubt, one of the great influences in my musical life. I too would love to see the research that Mr. Malek mentioned.

    I have gone on to teach solfege for almost 30 years, and use the ‘fixed’ do. I am constantly under pressure from colleagues to change to ‘moveable’ do. As has been pointed out in other posts, there are many good things about both systems: here is why I use this both in my classes, during my lessons, and especially in my own practice:
    1. It most closely mimics what we do on our instruments: when I play an Eb major scale on my instrument, I don’t think of it as a transposed C major. I still have to press the correct valve combination to produce that Eb. I still have to know that there is a half step between G and Ab.
    2. It is very good for transposition and score reading. After years of struggling with transposition (the bane of brass players!), after I learned the clefs in fixed do I found the skill to suddenly make a lot of sense and my reading ability (both in transposition and ‘in C’) to be greatly enhanced. And my score reading became much more proficient.
    3. I have taught moveable do in a limited way – it is true that it teaches the function of the scale, especially at the beginning level, and does it well. But as you move up the ladder of more complex music, it becomes more and more difficult and convoluted to use it.
    4. The argument is that the fixed do system is bogus because ‘Do’ refers to all forms of C (C#, Cb, etc) belies that fact that use of this system is about reading patterns of notes (really, note heads),in all clefs. A book that is not often used is in French – Dandelot’s ‘Manuel Pratique’ – which is not used to hear pitches or rhythms, but to recognize patterns of pitches through all seven clefs. This aspect of solfege is hardly ever discussed.

    Most people argue for the system that they grew up in, thinking that it is the most perfect way to perceive and learn music. I learned my aural skills via three different system (for a short time, moveable do), and it wasn’t until Larry worked with me on fixed do that it made sense. I have seen that with my students – even those who resist at the beginning of the course because they grew up in moveable.

    Finally, it seems to me that the purposes and rewards of fixed do would be:
    closely imitates instrumental technique, is good for transposition as it is applied to instrumentalists, is good for score reading, is excellent in taking care of the first thing in music literacy – the recognition of notes and patterns, and can be used to quickly learn a piece of music so one can concentrate on actually playing or singing the music.

    Moveable Do is very good to emphasize the theoretical aspects of music – the importance of the half steps, singing in modes and so on. Even so, I teach fixed do with a constant emphasis on the scale steps, no matter what key we are in.

    The analogy stated elsewhere in these posts that this really sounds like warring tribal factions is very true. While I am pretty convinced that western music will not fail if everyone starts to use moveable or fixed do, numbers, or some other invented system or non-system, it would be nice for everyone to take a deep breath, and live with the fact that some people prefer one over the other.

    Thank you for your stimulating blog site, and again for your inspiring book.

  26. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Apr 03, 13 at 06:55

    Linn – Many thanks for your thoughtful, articulate comment and your kind words about The Musician’s Way! The examples you give powerfully illustrate how and why a dedicated artist-teacher uses solfege. We all benefit from your insights and experience.

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    Aug 05, 13 at 07:09

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